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At JA BizTown, a mini city provides life-sized learning

Students get firsthand finance, civics experience during visit

Multiple districts — Amid the hullabaloo of a simulated workday, fourth-grader Reece Hartman wrinkled her brow at a practice paycheck, then held it up and called out a question: “So I go to the bank and I give them this, and what do I get back?”

She got a quick answer from the team at JA BizTown

“They’re gonna give me two bucks,” Reece said after conferring with the staff. “I think it’s a pretty good deal.”

JA BizTown is an immersive learning experience — a mini city complete with banks, government entities, stores and more — at the Junior Achievement of the Michigan Great Lakes complex at 4090 Lake Drive SE. The purpose of the program is to teach students in grades 4-6 the fundamentals of economics, civics and financial literacy in a hands-on way.

With her question answered, Reece got back to steering the ship at JA BizTown’s small-scale Wesco station, telling a team of fellow students what to do and when.

Reece is from Kelli Walker’s fourth-grade class at Rockford’s Parkside Elementary. Her class recently visited JA BizTown alongside Jim Herson’s sixth-graders from Grandville’s South Elementary. A few days prior, Mandalyn Noble’s fourth-grade class from Kenowa Hills’ Zinser Elementary stopped by as well.

‘I’ve noticed that the kids have really taken on the responsibility of their job. They’re really professional.’

— Parkside Elementary teacher Kelli Walker

Getting Ready For Business 

The classes spent weeks preparing for their visits using JA BizTown’s financial literacy and work readiness curriculum, which ties into teachers’ economics and civics lessons. Students had to learn how to make democratic decisions, from electing a mayor to paying taxes.

“Most of the preparations were all about being able to manage money, and (learning) where their money’s going,” Walker said. “They’ve learned about that, which is now hopefully going to make it easier for them to keep track of their money and make sure they’re saving money.”

To that end, students had to secure jobs to take on while on the JA BizTown grounds. Ahead of the trip, they interviewed for positions as bank tellers, restaurant managers and more.

During mock interviews at Zinser, teachers presented students with questions and talked to them about how to conduct themselves with poise and professionalism.

“Keep calm and keep your hands folded in your lap so they don’t fidget,” Noble advised her students. “You interview well because you want to get hired.” 

One of Noble’s students, Elyse Clark, interviewed for a DJ job at the BizTown radio station. Elyse identified working collaboratively as one of her strengths.

“I’m pretty social, so I would like to work with other people,” she said. “To be a DJ, you have to be really talkative and be kind in your interactions with other people.” 

Elyse got the job, and managed a list of song requests and ads to read over the speakers, but she quickly learned the role was not exactly what she expected.

“I’m enjoying my job but it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I learned a DJ has to read ads for revenue, not just play songs for fun.” 

Rockford fourth-grader Becker Jorgensen said he learned a lot about finances to get ready for his job as a bank teller at the JA BizTown mini-branch of Lake Michigan Credit Union.

“We had a lot of lessons about how credit cards and debit cards work and the differences between them,” Becker said. “And we did a lot of activities for how to run a business and how to pay for costs and expenses.” 

Paychecks, which came during mock staff meetings, were a highlight for JA BizTown citizens. They deposited their earnings into savings accounts, with the option to make donations or purchases with the money left over — after taxes, of course. 

There was a learning curve to it all, but there were plenty of staff members and parent volunteers to help out. 

‘I got to see how a whole town could function together within the same building.’

— Appleview Elementary fifth-grader Walter Gahagan

Rave Reviews

The JA BizTown program is just finishing up its first year in Michigan after launching in spring 2023. It’s garnered rave reviews from teachers and students alike.

Herson said he’s taken his Grandville sixth-graders to JA BizTown before, and he’s a fan.

“For the students, it gives them career options for what they can do when they leave school,” he said. “It prepares them for the real world.” 

It was Walker’s first time on a JA BizTown excursion. She said her students really took pride in their roles.

“I’ve noticed that the kids have really taken on the responsibility of their job,” the Rockford teacher said. “They’re really professional. … It’s cool to watch them collaborating with their peers and working together.”

Noble echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a really great program and it’s so fun,” she said. “We teach work and career readiness, how you learn money and what you do with it when you have it. Students are really interested in learning about real-life skills, thinking about the future.”

Doctor-for-the-day fourth-grader Reese Sessink of Zinser Elementary gives patient Amaryllis Merrick a wellness check at the simulated hospital inside JA BizTown

Teacher Riley Kuzniewski, from Sparta’s Appleview Elementary, said the trip enriched students’ understanding of money management, civics and government, and got them excited about one day joining the workforce.

“It is a fun learning environment that is teaching lessons in a fun way — not just in classrooms,” said one of Kuzniewski’s students, fifth-grader Alejandro Espinoza. 

Alejandro’s classmate Walter Gahagan concurred.

“I got to see how a whole town could function together within the same building,” Walter said.

Reporter Alexis Stark contributed to this story.

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Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley
Riley Kelley is a reporter covering Cedar Springs, Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Sparta school districts. An award-winning journalist, Riley spent eight years with the Ludington Daily News, reporting, copy editing, paginating and acting as editor for its weekly entertainment section. He also contributed to LDN’s sister publications, Oceana’s Herald-Journal and the White Lake Beacon. His reporting on issues in education and government has earned accolades from the Michigan Press Association and Michigan Associated Press Media Editors. Riley’s early work in journalism included a stint as an on-air news reporter for WMOM Radio, and work on the editorial staff of various student publications. Riley is a graduate of Grand Valley State University. He originally hails from western Washington.


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